Student Model: Book Review

A Half-Composed Puzzle

By Joaquin J. Santiago

Fall 2006

Olson, Steven. Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and Our Common Origins. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. ISBN: 0-618-35210-4. $12.95

In any investigation, the detective examines all the physical evidence along with witness accounts in order to piece together the course of events that led to subject of the investigation. The most successful investigations are the ones with the most evidence. What happens when there is a lack of evidence? Thats when we have an enigma. A half composed puzzle that does not quite display a semblance of the image that is supposed to be displayed when the puzzle is complete. This is what Steve Olson has faces when he undertook the writing of his book: Mapping Human History.

In it, we find that Mr. Olson has undertaken the almost impossible task of explaining the complete history of modern human beings. Mapping Human History is an attempt at the complete history of human evolution.

He begins with the earliest modern humans and follows the migrations of our species from Africa through the Middle East to Europe, Asia, Australia and eventually, the Americas. Mr. Olson is careful to explain each of the migrations with incredible detail. He highlights coexistence with Neanderthals (primitive humans) and explains that the two types of humans are different species that likely did not interbreed. Olson discusses races and why they do not matter genetically as well as other modern conceptions.

Steve Olson also explains other human qualities that have aided in the world wide migrations. He discusses the speculated origins of language. He explains that language is likely what made early modern man different than its Neanderthal neighbors and what likely aided in the migrations throughout the world. He also delves into agriculture and the reasons why the Middle East was so important. Most importantly, however, Olson talks about the genetics behind tracing human footsteps. He uses this as his most concrete evidence that all modern humans spawned out of Africa. Olson even explains a bit of the Human Genome Project.

Steve Olson does a good job of explaining the prevailing theories of modern human evolution throughout the book. He is clear, concise and thorough. He cites his sources of information and explains why he thinks these sources matter. All this aside, youll find that Olsons opponents adhere to their theories regardless of the evidence he presents. For example, the Chinese adhere to their own Peking Man (130) theory. The same happens in the Americas, where the evidence unearthed is a bit contradicting since one of the Clovis Points sites (205), offers a contradiction to the Clovis Point Theory.

Overall, Olsons job is a decent one considering the immense task of explaining the history of humanity with very little evidence. He admits to the arduous task when he cites that the theories explaining what has happened in the past are based on limited evidence. He even compares it to a future civilization telling what we do today by merely studying our kitchen utensils (93). This is indeed an undertaking since we dont even have a complete history of the last 2,000 years because our versions are highly dependant on the written records that are available.

I found Mapping Human History an interesting and well-thought out book. If there is a failure in this book, it resides in the theories themselves, not in Steve Olsons take on them or his understanding of human evolution. Basically, theres just too much information missing. Scientists have not discovered all the answers they require to have the complete puzzle solved. I think theyre getting closer. Each day brings new evidence that will dispute current theories or reinforce them. However, without that evidence, science is forced to speculate and guess at what happened so long ago.

Regardless, Steve Olsons message regarding human evolution and race is quite clear. It is a book I would recommend to most of my peers and most certainly to those who place race as a central problem at the forefront of the human condition.

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Page Last Updated: 7 January 2007